I went on a very long train journey recently, and had to arm myself with enough reading material to prevent the onset of insanity that comes from being cooped up for hours on end. I dont often buy books, and tend to raid the library or charity shops instead, but on this occasion I decided to splash out! I was in Borders and this novel caught my eye. I dont usually read anything with the words love story in the blurb, but I was seduced by the fact that The Widow of the South is based on a true story. When I discovered that this was Robert Hicks debut novel, and that he was a leading member of the Nashville music industry I didnt hold out much hope of the book being any good as he just didnt sound like a proper writer! However, I was pleasantly surprised.
The story begins in 1864, towards the end of the American Civil War. The Civil War was a conflict between the Unionists (representing the Northern states in America) led by Abraham Lincoln and the Confederates (representing the eleven Southern slave states) led by Jefferson Davis. The Unionists opposed the expansion of slavery, and fought for the restoration of the Union (the United States of America). The Confederates were fighting to remain a separate sovereignty, and preserve the Southern way of life which included their right to own slaves. Confederate soldiers were often referred to as Rebels and the Unionists were known as Yankees. Hicks has included a brief Historical Note for readers who may be unfamiliar with the history of the Civil War.
In November 1864 Confederate soldiers arrive in Franklin Tennessee, a town already occupied by the Unionists. Their General scouts around for a suitable building to use as a field hospital, and comes across the Carnton Plantation. Carrie McGavock, the lady of the household, is a woman in mourning for three of her children. She is in a deep depression, and is unable to receive visitors. Every waking moment is a torment. Initially, her slave Mariah tries to prevent the soldiers from entering the house and speaking to Carrie, but despite her protests, their home is taken over by the Confederate army.
Nine thousand men lose their lives in the Battle of Franklin, which is to be the five bloodiest hours of the Civil War. As the injured begin to arrive at the Plantation, Carrie McGavock transforms from a distressed and frightened character, to a woman who rolls up her sleeves and takes control of the situation. She gives comfort to men with horrific injuries, and remains calm as the stacks of amputated limbs grow larger by the hour. Yet one man, Zachariah Cashwell, attracts her attention.
Zachariah Cashwell is a young soldier, tired of battle. He decides on the spur of the moment that he wishes to die an honourable death, so he grabs his companys colours and charges unarmed into Yankee (Unionist) territory, fully expecting to die. One of the Unionist Generals spots Cashwell, and refuses to let his men shoot down an unarmed man, so they take Cashwell prisoner instead. Cashwell escapes, but is shot in the process and ends up at the Carnton Plantation.
Cashwell refuses to let anybody treat him, but Carrie decides that she is not going to allow him to die, and helps the surgeon to amputate Cashwells leg to ensure his survival. As Cashwell recovers, he and Carrie fall in love, although Carrie is married. Once the war is over, the Unionists come to collect the Confederate soldiers from the Plantation, to take them to Prison. Carrie is devastated, but does not go back into mourning.
Franklin changes a great deal after the war, as slaves are free to choose where to live and work. When a local businessman announces plans to plough one of his fields, he creates outrage because it is the resting place of hundreds of soldiers. Carrie and her husband John are furious, and this is the only point in the novel that the two characters appear close. The experience of war has changed Carrie into an incredibly strong willed woman, and she becomes a force to be reckoned with in the battle to leave the remains of the soldiers in peace.
Im not going to spoil the plot by explaining what happens next, but her actions earned her a place in Franklin history, and the nickname Widow of the South.
The novel is structured in three parts. Hicks employs multiple characters and multiple points of view as the story unfolds, and he alternates between first and third person narratives. This works particularly well for the battle as it is described through the eyes of various soldiers and recounts their thoughts and feelings as they desperately try to kill each other. Hicks manages to convey the confusion, fear and anger of the soldiers very well. The consistent third person narratives for Carries husband underline the emotional distance between them.
The romance between Carrie and Cashwell is the central thread of the book. He understands Carrie in a way that her husband cannot, but there is no chemistry between the two characters. They love each other, yet they cannot be together, and this is not really explored. When Cashwell is taken from the Plantation, Carrie does not seem to feel any sense of loss or pain at being parted with him forever.
Carrie is an interesting character who returns to life in the midst of the swirl of death. She is somewhat eccentric, and refuses to wear anything other than black, just because she likes it. Her slave, Mariah, is a lifelong friend and companion. Carrie tells her after the war that she was always free to leave, and you get the impression that Carrie considered her an equal, which was unusual for a Southern Woman at that time. The fact that Carrie McGavock was a real person makes her story all the more touching.
The Authors notes at the end of the novel are very interesting. It includes photographs of the McGavock family and their Plantation. Robert Hicks serves on the Board of Historic Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee. While he was working on the preservation of Carnton, he came across old diaries, newspaper clippings and letters, and began to piece together the story of Carrie McGavock. Hicks is still heavily involved in his work at Carnton and the campaign to secure and preserve the remaining fragments of the battlefield. The Carnton Plantation is open to visitors all year round.
There is no doubt that this is an impressively researched story that sheds light on a little known Civil War Battle and the failed Southern Cause. I thought that the plot meandered and was a bit slow at times, but I enjoyed it nonetheless and felt that I had learned a little bit about American history by the end. I suppose Gone with the Wind will always be the ultimate Civil War novel, but The Widow of the South has the distinction of being a true story. When I finished this book, I became interested in finding out more about the Carnton Plantation, and would quite like to go there. The Widow of the South wasnt the love story that I thought it would be, but I would definitely recommend it to anybody who enjoys historical fiction.
The Widow of the South is part of the Buy 2, get 1 free offer in Borders Books at the moment.